This is a blog which primarily gives some attention to movies that I find were overlooked (for whatever reason) or are simply underrated. I also comment on other, mainly movie-related issues as well. I welcome any suggestions for films to be added to this distinguished list.

One word of warning: The films listed below contain spoilers, so caution during reading is required.

Monday, September 19, 2016

Agony Booth review: Calvin and Hobbes (1985-1995)

My newest Agony Booth work focuses on my mom's all-time favorite comic strip.

It probably goes without saying that the most influential comic strip of our time is Charles Schulz’s Peanuts. While certainly not the first strip to appear in daily newspapers, Schulz made Charlie Brown, Snoopy and the rest of the gang an indelible part of pop culture. One reason for this was that Schulz put a great deal of himself into the strip. He projected all his emotions, triumphs, and failures into those characters, which is why so many people identify with them in one way or another. Hence, it was hauntingly appropriate that Schulz’s passing in 2000 coincided with the publication of his final Peanuts strip, which announced his retirement.

In addition to merchandising, the great success of the strip translated memorably onto TV (which included enough Christmas specials to rival Disney) and even feature films. The most recent of these was last year’s delightful The Peanuts Movie, which did better justice to its predecessors than either Jurassic World or The Force Awakens.

Naturally, Peanuts has inspired other strips. Of these, the only one which truly had the same impact on pop culture was Jim Davis’s Garfield. Like Peanuts, that strip had merchandise and was adapted for both the big and small screens. Also, who hasn’t, at some point, heard a cat described as being like Garfield?

But another Peanuts-inspired strip which proved quite interesting was Calvin and Hobbes, created by Bill Watterson.

That strip, which first appeared in newspapers in November 1985, focused on a young boy named Calvin. But unlike Charlie Brown, Calvin basically delights in not seeking the approval of other children, all the while causing mischief and with quite the active imagination to boot. The strip begins with him “catching” a stuffed tiger in the woods near his home. He names this tiger Hobbes, and soon they’re constantly embarking on adventures together, even though, to anyone else, it’s simply Calvin playing with a stuffed animal.

Calvin’s imagination doesn’t stop with Hobbes, either. He often imagines himself as such figures as superhero Stupendous Man, private eye Tracer Bullet, and space explorer Spaceman Spiff. Other imaginary excursions which end up causing real mishaps include Calvin and Hobbes using a cardboard box as a time machine in one series (which they use to go back to the time of dinosaurs) and as a “transmogifier” in another series (which Calvin uses to turn himself into various animals, including a tiger).

One could describe Calvin as being as bratty as Lucy, but with Snoopy’s imagination. Hobbes, likewise, could be described as being as thoughtful as Linus, but with a bit of a mischievous streak himself.

Calvin was named for 16th Century theologian John Calvin, while Hobbes was named after 17th Century philosopher Thomas Hobbes. This somewhat explains the characteristics of the strip’s title characters. Like his 16th Century namesake, Calvin believes he’s destined for greatness, and even views some people as beneath him. Hobbes, likewise, is a rational figure, and is willing to give consideration to others (and, unlike Calvin, doesn’t mind the opposite sex).

Indeed, many of the laughs the strips generate come from Calvin impulsively doing something he thinks is cool, despite Hobbes urging caution. For instance, there’s one series of strips in which Calvin attempts to write a report for school on bats. As he doesn’t want to go to the trouble of doing actual research, Calvin simply states that bats are bugs (despite Hobbes questioning this), and with some fancy wording and a drawing of a bat that’s simply the Batman logo with fangs, just puts his report in a clear, plastic binder, thinking he’s guaranteed an A. Calvin is then shocked that his paper got an F and promptly buries it to avoid telling his parents.

Speaking of Calvin’s parents, they’re known in this strip simply as “Mom” and “Dad”. Neither they nor Calvin are ever given a surname. Nonetheless, this fits the format of the strip fine, as Calvin never has any need to identify the two as anything other than his parents.

One could argue that Calvin gets his penchant for outrageous lies from his dad. This is because there are several strips in which Calvin’s dad lies about certain things. For instance, one strip has Dad explaining that the sun is not really big, even though Calvin read that it was. There’s also his Dad sometimes questioning if Calvin is truly his child, which is not surprisingly another aspect of the strip that drew anger from some.

The only other relative of Calvin’s we ever see is his Uncle Max. He had one brief series of strips, but Watterson then dropped him, believing that future appearances wouldn’t work given how Calvin’s parents could never be addressed by their actual names.

One character who has a surname, however, is Calvin’s neighbor/classmate Susie Derkins. These two have a love-hate relationship, to say the least. Unlike Snoopy, Calvin is anything but romantic. As is not uncommon for children his age, Calvin becomes sickened at the thought of even being near members of the opposite sex. Susie basically represents Calvin’s aversion to girls, so much so that Calvin creates a club (with only himself and Hobbes as members) called G.R.O.S.S. (Get Rid Of Slimy girlS).

One girl that Calvin dares not cross, though, is Rosalyn, his frequent babysitter. She wastes no time in laying down the law with Calvin, and even takes advantage of his parents’ desperation to spend time away from him by frequently asking for more money. But this doesn’t stop Calvin from at least attempting to undermine her rule. In one series, he locks himself and Hobbes in the bathroom with her school papers, which he threatens to flush down the toilet if she doesn’t get him pizza and a video player. In another clash, Calvin succeeds in locking Rosalyn out of the house so he and Hobbes can simply gorge on Oreos while watching TV shows they aren’t supposed to.

But the magic of the strip is that Calvin is capable of generating sympathy as well. Despite his parents’ near-constant frustration, there are a couple of strips of Calvin spending some pleasant time with them. There are also his encounters with school bully Moe, once described by Calvin as a six-year-old who shaves. This shows that Calvin is going through that period of life that we all go through: where you get picked on and pick on others.

Showing both the good and bad of children in this manner ended up causing controversy in some circles. Examples of this included Calvin’s dismissal of girls as well as his view of school and bodily functions. In one of the Calvin and Hobbes collections, Watterson claims that the strip was even banned in some areas. He also wondered if he would be noted for being the first to use the word “booger” in a comic strip.

However, I can’t forget the bond the title characters share. They argue and even physically brawl on occasion (naturally, nobody believes Calvin when he states that Hobbes roughs him up) but the devotion they have to each other is never in doubt. This is evident in the fact that Calvin would rather spend time playing “Calvinball” (a game in which the rules are made up as you go along) with Hobbes rather than baseball with his classmates.

Watterson, who rarely gave interviews, concluded Calvin and Hobbes with a strip published on New Year’s Eve 1995. That strip simply has our two heroes going off in a sled following a nice snow-fall, which Hobbes compares to having a new sheet of paper to draw on. Believing he carried the strip as far as he could, Watterson has since retired to private life.

Another difference between this strip and Peanuts is that there was neither any merchandise nor TV/movie specials that came out of it. The only product related to this strip I ever recall seeing are car decals of Calvin urinating (with his back to us, of course).

Given the context of what the strip presented, though, perhaps this was for the best. I don’t know if I’d want a six-year-old to watch something involving a boy boasting about how disgusting his lunch is and constantly hating girls. Another plus to this was that it allowed the audience to create the characters’ voices in their own heads, just as we could do with Snoopy (You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown and Snoopy: The Musical aside).

However, the title characters did appear in episodes of Robot Chicken and Family Guy. Heck, characters in the series Community even dressed up as them for Halloween in an episode of that series.

The strip’s influence continued in 2011 with the debut of the fan-made web comic Hobbes and Bacon from cartoonists Dan and Tom Heyerman. In that series, Calvin is an adult now married to (yep!) Susie, with whom they have a daughter, who’s now playing with Hobbes. That child is named for philosopher Francis Bacon.

Finally, I’d like to dedicate this review to Chuck, otherwise known as SFDebris. Just last month, he announced that he would stop taking review requests for his site at the end of September due to health issues. SFDebris began his illustrious web series with insightful and hilariously scathing reviews of Star Trek: Voyager. Since then, he’s looked at installments of other series (Trek and otherwise) as well as several movies and even some comics and video games. His work has always been inspiring to me. Sir, I wish you a complete recovery and look forward to the work you put out in the future.

Tuesday, August 23, 2016

Agony Booth review: Star Trek Beyond (2016)

My newest Agony Booth article looks at the latest entry in the Star Trek reboot series.
Star Trek Beyond had its premiere in July and, appropriately, was dedicated to both Leonard Nimoy and Anton Yelchin. Like the two previous movies in the Star Trek reboot series, Beyond, which was co-written by Simon Pegg, has its moments, but lacks substance to place it in the same category of great science fiction as the classic series it’s based on.

The movie begins with Captain Kirk (Chris Pine) negotiating with aliens who, for whatever reason, are pissed off, and in an attempt at visual humor, turn out not to be as imposing as the camera initially makes them seem. These small creatures malevolently attack and cover Kirk like they’re gremlins before Scotty (Pegg) beams him back. Kirk also gets a souvenir called an Abronath for his trouble.

Kirk next explains in his captain’s log that the Enterprise is now three years into the five-year mission it began at the conclusion of Into Darkness. He adds that, with his birthday approaching (a subtle nod to Kirk’s birthday in The Wrath of Khan), he’s struggling to find meaning in his life, away from the shadow of his father.

This begs the question of what happened to Carol Marcus, who joined the crew in the previous movie. Longtime fans know that in the original timeline, she and Kirk had a son David, who was tragically taken from Kirk by Klingons (led by Doc Brown, of all people) in The Search for Spock. But the reboot gave an opportunity to show that relationship in a new light. I don’t know if Alice Eve didn’t want to reprise her role here or not, but this was definitely a missed opportunity.

The Enterprise arrives at the awesome-looking new Starbase Yorktown, where Kirk is considering accepting a promotion. While not having Carol in this movie is a shame, we do see another crew member with a family life here, and that’s Sulu (John Cho). Star Trek: Generations revealed that Sulu had a daughter, and upon arriving at Yorktown, we see her as a little girl, with both her fathers, no less.

It’s also revealed that Spock (Zachary Quinto) and Uhura (Zoe Saldana) have ended their relationship, and if that wasn’t enough, Spock receives word that his older self, Ambassador Spock (Nimoy) has died.

Not long afterward, however, Kirk gets orders to take the Enterprise on a rescue mission to a nearby nebula. An alien named Kalara (Lydia Wilson) informs the crew that her ship is stranded on a planet in the nebula. Upon arriving at the planet, named Altamid, the Enterprise encounters a swarm of small ships that quickly tear the hell out of it. The leader of these aliens, Krall (Idris Elba) boards the ship with his minions looking for the Abronath, but to no avail. As the ship gets torn to pieces for the third time in as many films (again? sheesh…), Kirk orders the crew to evacuate to Altamid.

As the ship’s saucer section crashes on the planet, Krall captures crewmembers including Uhura and Sulu. But Kirk manages to rendezvous with Chekov (Yelchin) and Kalara in the damaged saucer section. She then reveals herself to be one of Krall’s soldiers, and attempts to take the Abronath. But Kirk is one step ahead of her as he and Chekov escape by activating the saucer’s boosters. The fight ends with the saucer flipping over, crushing Kalara.

Elsewhere, Spock and McCoy (Karl Urban) are reunited and attempt to locate the others, while McCoy shows his unique bedside manner by tending to Spock’s wounds. The two later have a heart-to-heart where Spock informs him of both Ambassador Spock’s passing and his breakup with Uhura. However, it’s not clear whether they broke up because of Spock’s wish to attempt to keep his Vulcan family line going, or whether he wanted to simply continue the work his older self was doing.

Scotty turns out to be on another section of the planet, and after narrowly avoiding a fall over a cliff, is rescued from Krall’s men by Jaylah (Sofia Boutella). She informs Scotty that she escaped Krall’s prison some time ago and has taken refuge in what turns out to be the USS Franklin, a Federation ship reported missing a century earlier. We also learn that she enjoys listening to rock music in her spare time (gee, I wonder if that’ll become important later). Soon, Kirk, Chekov, Spock, and McCoy join Scotty on the ship and plot their rescue of the rest of the crew.

But Krall has managed to find the Abronath, which Kirk instructed Ensign Syl (Melissa Roxburgh) to hide inside her roomy head (that’s original). As Uhura attempts to talk sense into Krall, he uses the Abronath to complete a weapon that was created on the planet centuries ago. Krall then demonstrates it on Syl before announcing his plans to use it to attack Yorktown, and then the Federation.

Kirk and the others then launch an attack on Krall in order to transport the remaining crew onto the Franklin. But this doesn’t stop Krall from launching his fleet toward Yorktown. Spock and McCoy are able to beam onto one of the small ships and learn that VHF transmissions can disrupt the wavelength the ships operate on. As it so happens, Kayla has just the kind of transmissions needed to destroy these ships (what are the odds?). Naturally, this means that rock music is the only thing standing between the Federation and total annihilation. But I suppose this is no less ridiculous than aliens attempting to conquer the Federation with a video game in the Next Generation episode “The Game”.

As the ships are destroyed, Krall crashes into the Yorktown and blends into the evacuating populace. It’s at this point we get the plot twist that had to happen. Uhura looks at the Franklin’s logs and realizes that Krall is actually the Franklin’s captain, Balthazar Edison. She and Kirk also learn that Edison was a soldier who became disillusioned with peacetime after the Federation was formed, and that he blames the Federation for abandoning him and his crew once they were stranded on Altamid.

Apparently, the crew was able to somehow change their appearance by using technology they found on Altamid.

Kirk tracks Krall into Yorktown’s ventilation system as the villain tries to activate his super weapon. But Kirk manages to send both it and Krall into space before Spock and McCoy rescue him.

The film concludes with everyone celebrating Kirk’s birthday while staying on the Yorktown for the entire time that it takes for the Enterprise-A to get built. Not surprisingly, Kirk decides not to take the promotion offered to him, and Jayla is offered a chance to join Starfleet. It’s not clear if Spock and Uhura are a couple again, but there is a nice moment where he goes through Ambassador Spock’s things and comes across a picture of the original crew (which I guess Ambassador Spock just happened to have with him when he traveled back in time in the first reboot film). This is such a nice moment that I’m willing to forgive the fact that the pic itself is a group photo from Star Trek V.

In another nice touch, we hear the famous “Space, the final frontier…” speech with each of our seven characters reciting parts of it.

Like its two predecessors, this movie definitely has some plot holes. For instance, we learn that Jayla was able to keep the Franklin hidden from Krall by somehow cloaking it. I guess nobody managed to accidentally bump into it the whole time Krall was on the planet? Also, why did Krall wait until he just happened to come across Kirk to get the piece he needed to create his super weapon? How did he lose that piece in the first place?

I also think it goes without saying that seeing the Enterprise get ripped apart is getting very old.

In the plus column, Elba does a fine job as Krall, under makeup that makes the actor unrecognizable. The Yorktown itself is as awesome-looking as Spock flying inside V’Ger in Star Trek: The Motion Picture. Also, Carol Marcus’s vanishing act, while a missed opportunity, did give Reboot Kirk a chance to go through a film without putting on his ladies’ man act. As I once noted, Kirk was much more than that, which is something Kevin Sorbo learned the hard way when he fucked up Andromeda (assuming Sorbo learned that lesson at all).

But again like its two predecessors, Beyond’s focus on being fun is at the expense of being something meaningful. It’s dumb fun, which more or less sums up the Trek reboot series. In fairness, Star Trek as dumb fun truly began with Voyager, specifically after that show decided to toss its premise out the window in order to put the action center stage. This decline continued with Enterprise when that series elected to do the same thing. But this makes the reboot series all the more disheartening, because the reboot was promoted as giving Trek a new lease on life. But apparently this new lease on life meant turning out movies that, stylistically, aren’t much different from all the other mindless action films that get released each summer. The fact that, unlike the original Trek movies, we don’t have to wait two years to see if Kirk comes back to life or if our crew will get a new ship, illustrates that.

While a movie or TV show being dumb fun isn’t a crime in and of itself, it’s somewhat sad that Star Trek began as smart, ahead-of-its-time science fiction and eventually became mindless (albeit enjoyable) fluff like, say, the Friday the 13th series.

Friday, July 22, 2016

Fear City (1984)

"A city full of suspects."
-Al Wheeler.

I have no idea why, but predictability in movies seems to run hot and cold for me. In some cases, I am able to enjoy a film even though I can guess the ending a mile away, while, in others, such predictabiliy makes me stop watching before the movie is half over.
I suppose, as in the case with Blood Work and even some of the Friday the 13th films, this willingness to see the pic through to the end can be narrowed down to the energy that's brought to the proceedings.
This movie is another film that falls into that category. A serial killer is prowling Manhattan and his victims are ladies employed in strip clubs.
As it turns out, one of the killer's potential targets is Loretta (Melanie Griffith) who works at such a club owned by her lover Matt Rossi (Tom Berenger).
Rossi is an former boxer whose career in the ring ended when he ended up killing an opponent during a match. Hence, he's a little unsure about the possibility of taking on someone who's threatening not only his love but his business.
But, at the goading of his partner Nicky Parzeno (Jack Scalia), Rossi reluctanly cooperates with no-nonsense police detective Al Wheeler (Billy Dee Williams, suave as always) to track the killer down.
Not surprisingly, the film ends with Rossi taking out the killer in order to save Loretta's life.
This movie certainly shares the same, nice film noir atmosphere as the same year's Tightrope. But I rate that film a bit higher because what made it unique was that it wasn't just Clint Eastwood playing a police detective who gives out one-liners. Rather Clint was playing a detective who spent a lot of time in his own head as he considered the possibility that he may be the one who has been killing women in his New Orleans haunts.
Fear City offers no such surprises in that sense but it is still very entertaining thanks to its atmosphere and its pleasant cast.